For all the anecdotes and speculation about working from home during the pandemic, there is still little systematic evidence about how employees have changed their day-to-day work activities as a consequence of these unexpected shocks. In particular, how have employees changed their patterns of digital communication — e.g., meetings and emails — to compensate for the lack of face-to-face conversation that typically occurs in a physical workplace? Have various dimensions of meeting and email activity, such as their frequency or scope, changed as employees and organizations adapt to a new working environment? Generalizing from past research on work from home arrangements is challenging, given that most remote work prior to COVID-19 was voluntary, less widespread, and performed under less dramatic circumstances.
This paper provides the first large scale analysis of how digital communication patterns have changed in the early stages of the pandemic. To study this question, we acquired de-identified, aggregated meta-data from an information technology services provider that licenses digital communications solutions to organizations around the world. We use aggregated digital meta-data on emails and meetings for 3,143,270 users across 21,478 de-identified firms in 16 large metropolitan areas, aggregated by the provider to the level of Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and day, across all available firms. The meta-data provides information on both email and meeting frequency, as well as other salient aspects of digital communications and interactions such as meeting size and duration, the number of email recipients, and the time emails are sent, among other dimensions
We find, compared to prepandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (-20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (-11.5 percent) in the post-lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 minutes), along with short-term increases in email activity. These findings provide insight from a novel dataset into how the nature of work has changed for a large sample of knowledge workers. We discuss these changes in light of the ongoing challenges faced by organizations and workers struggling to adapt and perform in the face of a global pandemic.
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